A Departing Third Opens an Unclear Future

Yesterday, March 10, 2010, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar died of a heart attack while visiting Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi led the inimitable institution, considered by many if not most Sunni Muslims to be the leading Islamic university in the world, since his appointment by President Mubarak in 1995. Together with President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sheikh Tantawi presided over a period of considerable change during his tenure, and their lives, each one in their eighties, spanned epochal changes in Egyptian society. As the first of these three elder statesmen has passed on, Egyptians may wonder about the next generation of leadership, and the directions it may take.

During his career Sheikh Tantawi was a lightning rod of criticism from all corners of Egypt, making rulings considered too liberal or too conservative, depending on the source. Among the chief condemnations made of his tenure was that he was compliant more to the will of the state than to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Though a religious figure, he was also a political appointee; such remarks had ample target. For Muslims frustrated with an apparent secular regime he was its worst symbol, as he was attached to the heart of Islamic learning in the Arab world, the chief figure expected to uphold the purity of Islam.

A brief litany of his most controversial rulings includes issues straddling the religious/secular/political divisions which characterize Muslim debates today. In terms of women’s issues he fought against the burka, the full body covering opening only with slits for the eyes. He denied the Islamic foundation of the cultural practice of female genital circumcision. He ruled also that Islamic sharia did not forbid a woman president. In terms of the Western debate on terrorism and jihad he ruled that Islamic jihad must only be a defensive measure. He condemned the attacks of September 11, but wavered on suicide bombings against Israeli targets. Yet he also worked tirelessly as a mediator for peace, both in Israel/Palestine and Iraq. He was also a firm defender of equality between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, and enjoyed a warm relationship with Pope Shenouda. In all of these matters he pleased some but not others, but many were left frustrated that he either went too far, or not far enough, in his rulings. His lasting reputation as a political stooge or a man of principle will be debated long after his death, which marks the end of an era in Egyptian history, and the initiation of an unclear future.

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi was 81 years old. Currently his Christian religious counterpart Pope Shenouda is 86. President Mubarak, meanwhile, is also 81. Pope Shenouda was selected by lot to fill the patriarchal chair of St. Mark upon the passing of Pope Kyrillos in 1971. Sheikh Tantawi was appointed to fill the post of al-Azhar, being promoted from the position of Grand Mufti, upon the passing of Gad al-Haq, who was known as a conservative Islamic figure, and with whom he had clashed several times. President Mubarak, meanwhile, became president upon the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. None of the three obtained their post by the will of the people, yet all have defined the political, Islamic, and Christian positions for the majority of Egyptian citizens. Their influence has been incalculable.

Now, Sheikh Tantawi has passed on. In some respects he is probably the least significant of the three. Regardless of the prestige of al-Azhar in Islamic history in the modern state it has become an extension of government bureaucracy. This does not imply Sheikh Tantawi was not sincere in his rulings. It is simply a statement that Muslim religion in Egypt is tied to political rule, and in the multiplicity of religious interpretations al-Azhar is no longer inviolable for the Muslim faithful.

This is much less so when it comes to the power of the church. Orthodox Christians in Egypt represent 90-95% of Christianity, and the majority of these look to Pope Shenouda, though without infallibility, as the undisputed leader and example of Christian thought and practice. There is no connection to the state; though President Sadat once banished Pope Shenouda to a monastery he could have no role in selecting a replacement. President Mubarak, interestingly, reestablished him to his papal chair. The pope is a towering figure in Egypt; in recognition of his advanced age the church is wary of decisive policy. Pope Shenouda has set the course; it will be continued until he also passes away, and then God will select by lot another leader. The church, quietly, does have divergent voices; only God knows which one will emerge.

Since the wick of Sheikh Tantawi was consumed before that of President Mubarak there is less apprehension concerning the next appointment of Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. It is anticipated that the president will appoint someone similar, certain not to stray too far from the political perspectives of government. Yet the status of sheikh is not similar to that of pope, though by tradition he maintains the post until his death. As a political appointee it is possible, though unlikely, that the next president may depose the current figure and select his own man. Still, choosing the interpretive head of the Islamic world is not as simple as choosing a minister of agriculture; there will be substantial pressures on the next president to satisfy the demands of every religious interest. The identity of this next president, however, is an open question, perhaps for the first time since the revolution of 1952 introduced military rule to Egypt.

Some observers believe simply that following President Mubarak’s anticipated decision to end his political career—the next elections are in 2011—another general from the military/security sector will be internally selected to continue governance. His presidency will be popularly validated through elections, and the course of Egyptian politics will continue as it has for the past sixty years: Secular in orientation, focused on development, cautious with human rights and freedoms, wary of the power of religion.

This prediction bears a substantial wildcard, however, which has not yet featured in the modern Egyptian state. President Mubarak has a son who is acclaimed by some as a potential successor. Gamal Mubarak, however, is not a military man. While he may (this is debated) enjoy the backing of his father, he is less likely to garnish the behind the scenes support of the military elite. Furthermore, while many Egyptians appreciate the stability of the Mubarak presidency, they are reluctant to witness the instillation of his son, reducing the status of the republic to that of the nepotistic Pharaohs.

One final possibility is that true democracy does emerge, but with what result? While political Islamist interests do not represent a majority of the population they are adept at the political game of campaigning and elections. If allowed to participate they may ride the religious slogan of ‘Islam is the Solution’ into the presidential palace on the backs of a populace frustrated by lack of the secular regime’s advancement of freedom and economy. Or, there are other candidates outside the traditional government sector which command wide respect, but are criticized as candidates for lack of political acumen. The former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad al-Baradi, is one such gentleman. Though he is understandably reluctant to throw his hat into the ring, he represents the hope of many Egyptians longing for civilian, democratic governance.

Though it be said that only God chooses the pope, space can be granted for the behind the scenes maneuvering of Orthodox bishops. Pope Shenouda has created a church bureaucracy similar to that enjoyed by the state by dividing growing bishoprics and appointing bishops loyal to his philosophy of Christianity. The Holy Synod comprises these bishops in their entirety, and with the General Lay Council of the Church is tasked with election of three candidates according to church tradition, which can be variable. Among these three, then, God makes the selection, through a blindfolded child who draws the lot.

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi’s life spanned the rule of three kings, three presidents, and both war and peace with Israel. He witnessed the transformation of the country from a British colony with Turkish vestiges into a modern bureaucratic state. His passing signals the beginning of an era of change for Egypt, though the direction is yet uncertain. Not until Pope Shenouda and President Mubarak – may God preserve their lives – join him in the world beyond will this direction fully come to light. May their successors receive God’s wisdom for the substantial challenges each will face in filling the shoes of such monumental personalities.

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